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Calif. firefighters scramble to protect sequoias

THREE RIVERS, Calif. (AP) — Hot, dry weather on Sunday added to the challenges facing California firefighters battling to keep flames from driving further into a grove of ancient sequoias, where the base of the world’s tallest tree has been wrapped in protective foil.

Fire officials warned that stronger winds were also contributing to “critical fire conditions” in the area of the KNP Complex, two lightning-sparked blazes that merged on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying gusts and lower humidity could create conditions for rapid wildfire spread.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a foothill town of about 2,500 people. Firefighters using bulldozers expanded a line between the fire and the community, fire spokesperson Rebecca Paterson said Sunday.

More than 34 square miles of forest land have been blackened.

The National Park Service said Friday that fire had reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, where it scorched a grouping of sequoias known as the “Four Guardsmen” that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 sequoias.

Since then crews have managed to keep the flames from encroaching further into the area.

“The fire perimeter kind of wraps around the Giant Forest at this point,” Paterson said.

Firefighters swaddled the base of the General Sherman Tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet, according to the National Park Service. It towers 275 feet high and has a circumference of 103 feet at ground level.

Firefighters who were wrapping the base of the sequoias in foil and sweeping leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee from the danger, fire spokesperson Katy Hooper said Saturday. They returned when conditions improved to continue the work and start a strategic fire along Generals Highway to protect the Giant Forest grove, she said.

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of fires — fueled by climate change — can overwhelm the trees.

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